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Advocates don’t want budget balanced on wounded veterans’ backs

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Advocates for veterans Wednesday called on the federal government to honor its commitments to provide lifetime care for wounded service members, despite debt crisis pressure for budget cuts.

The calls came during a hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee about the growing long-term human and financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system could face $40 billion to $55 billion in costs treating veterans from the conflicts over the next 10 years, depending on how troops are deployed in the future, according to an estimate presented at the hearing by the Congressional Budget Office.

Congress and the Obama administration must keep those costs in mind as they try to work out an agreement on the debt crisis, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the committee. “We must remember that we can’t balance our budget at the expense of the health care and benefits our veterans have earned,” Murray said. “Their sacrifices have been too great.”

“I’m here to tell you, put your money where your mouth is,” Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, testified. “We are worth it.”

Crystal Nicely, wife of Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, who lost his arms and legs during a patrol in Helmand province in Afghanistan last year when he triggered a makeshift bomb as he crossed a bamboo bridge, described the problems the couple has encountered seeking treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Todd Nicely attended the hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, walking in and out of the hearing room using prosthetic legs. He had to wait almost 70 days for paperwork confirming that he had lost four limbs to be approved, delaying his release from the military and holding up plans to prepare for the next phase of his life. The papers were signed this week, after Murray made inquiries to Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III, Crystal Nicely testified.

“It should not take my talking with a United States senator to make that happen,” she said. “More importantly, what about all the other wounded Marines who have not had the chance to ask for that kind of help?”

“Does it take senators kicking butt to get help?” asked Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass). “If a prompt determination can’t be made for someone who’s lost all four limbs, what hope is there for someone who has lesser wounds?”

“What is upsetting is the lack of support, compassion and benefits for these individuals,” Crystal Nicely said. “It needs to be just a little bit easier.”

The White House and Democratic congressional leaders have warned that payments to veterans might be at risk if a debt agreement is not reached.

Rieckhoff, who attended a briefing on the debt crisis Tuesday at the White House with representatives of other veterans organizations, said, “We came back with no real additional information.”

Veterans, including some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities, “don’t know if the paychecks are coming,” he said. “They’re extremely concerned and scared.

“This is ridiculous. It’s outrageous,” Rieckhoff testified. “We need clarity from you all in this town, and we haven’t gotten any.”

A “virtual march on Washington” on Facebook, sponsored Wednesday by Disabled American Veterans, received heavy participation, according to a spokesman for the organization. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of comments,” Joseph Chennelly said. “It’s being heard. We’re making sure Congress and the White House are listening.”

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